Author: Sam Grant
In 2017, the Home Office locked up 27,331 people in immigration detention. None of them were given a release date when they arrived in these prison-like centres.
Seven out of 10 were held longer than 28 days, and one person was held for almost five years.
Among them were children, elderly people and survivors of rape, torture and slavery.
With the Home Affairs Committee undertaking an inquiry into immigration detention, we took the opportunity to draw MPs’ attention to the most vulnerable people subjected to this cruel regime.
Victims of torture
In 2016, the Home Office was finally obliged to draw up guidance to prevent people who’ve been tortured from being held in indefinite detention.
But the guidance created a definition of torture so narrow – excluding people mistreated by anyone other than a state – that it would allow victims of groups like Daesh and Boko Haram to be locked up. This approach was ruled unlawful last year – but the Government’s new draft is hardly any better.
It’s so complicated that lawyers and medical professionals have warned it’s impossible to apply. Freedom from Torture says the new definition has no ‘accepted clinical or legal foundation’ and could exclude the very people it’s supposed to protect.
The Home Office has dropped previous rules that said demonstrably vulnerable people – those who could be seriously harmed by detention – should only be held in the most exceptional circumstances.
Now, people who’ve been tortured, are in poor health or are suicidal have to reach an even higher threshold to prove they are too vulnerable to be detained. And in detention centres, screening for mental capacity issues like learning disabilities, autism spectrum disorder or acquired brain injury is weak or very limited – leaving these groups liable to slip through the net.
The result of the new threshold has been a sharp decline in the number of at-risk people being released and, according to Her Majesty’s Inspectorate of Prisons, “almost a fifth of those in detention were assessed by the Home Office to be at the higher levels of risk”.
In 2016, the first restrictions were introduced on the detention of pregnant women. In theory, the new rules prevent them from being held other than in exceptional circumstances or when they’re about to be deported.
In such cases, pregnant women can be held for up to a week – but there is nothing to stop the Home Office from detaining them over and over again on these terms, so the time limit is effectively meaningless.
Home Office figures show the vast majority of pregnant women held in detention are released back into the community – rendering their ordeal not just harmful to their health, but pointless.
It’s about time
Immigration detention is inhumane, unnecessary and ineffective even for people without traumatic pasts or health conditions. Being locked up without a release date is devastating. In the words of one person who’s experienced detention: “in prison, you count your days down, but in detention you count your days up and up and up”.
Pregnant women and victims of torture should never be held in immigration detention, and the Home Office should prioritise vulnerable people’s health over administrative convenience. And no one should ever be held indefinitely.